Q&A With StoryCorps' Dave Isay
The Power of Purposeful Work
Since 2003, the nonprofit organization StoryCorps has recorded more than 65,000 conversations in small sound booths stationed across a number of cities in the United States. The conversations—most of which are archived at the Library of Congress and some of which are selected for broadcast on NPR's "Morning Edition"—are often between friends or family members and highlight the intimate moments of daily life.
StoryCorps' founder is radio producer Dave Isay, who has won six Peabody Awards, a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, and the 2015 TED Prize for his work. In addition, Isay has published five books that draw on common themes from the recorded conversations, such as friendship, love, marriage, and motherhood.
His latest collection is Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work (Penguin Press, 2016), which he co-authored with Maya Millett, a former producer at StoryCorps. The book is a series of exchanges between people talking about the work they do and why they do it. At a time when the K-12 conversation often steers toward college and career readiness, the book offers a glimpse into how people have found fulfilling work.
Commentary Associate Kate Stoltzfus interviewed Isay by phone about the pursuit of rewarding work and the role that educators and others can play in helping students find their professional callings.
EW: Since founding StoryCorps in 2003, you have recorded and compiled thousands of stories from all over the U.S. about mothers, about love and marriage, parenting and teaching. What is it about work and career that you find compelling?
ISAY: StoryCorps is really about listening. It’s giving people a chance to listen to someone who means something to them and honor them by listening to them. And when people do StoryCorps interviews, people talk about what’s most important in their lives. People think of it as, “If I had 40 minutes left to live, what would I ask of this person who means so much to me? What would I say to them?” And our work lives are one of those themes that come up again. What happens in the StoryCorps booth is that people talk about the great themes of human existence: our dreams, our families, people we love, people we’ve lost, and the work we’ve done. It’s something that comes up constantly. StoryCorps is essentially collecting the wisdom of humanity because of the nature of the questions asked in the book. There’s a great deal of wisdom about people’s work lives that have come up. About a quarter of a million people participate in StoryCorps, so we wanted to distill that wisdom and share it with the world.
EW: Many of these stories illustrate the powerful role that mentors—such as parents or teachers—can play for people in finding meaningful work. Could you speak to the importance of influence in shaping what individuals want to do with their lives?
ISAY: In this book, the profession that shows up most often is teachers—teachers themselves and teachers or others who showed people the path to their callings. One of the lessons is that some people don’t find their calling until later in life. There’s a story of a woman who worked at Dairy Queen and worked five jobs. She was a single mom. She was bringing her last kid to register for college and said quietly to herself, "I wish I could go to college." The person who was helping her register said, "Well, you can." She was an artist but had to register for a science class and registered for anthropology. She didn’t know what anthropology meant. She had to look it up, but she knew she had found her calling. There are a lot of these instances where suddenly you know. When you know, you know. It’s like falling in love. It is teachers and parents and other mentors who can expose people to a wide range of areas and kinds of professions and interests, and at some point the person who is being mentored or the student can trip over that thing that they’re meant to do. Having a rich and rewarding work life is just one of the greatest gifts that anyone can ever hope to have, so it’s extremely important. All of us have this kind of quiet, still voice inside of us that knows, you know, knows what that thing is. It’s just helping people listen to that voice and figure out what their greatest gifts are, what it is they care about deeply, and what it is that they’re meant to do with their lives.
EW: What do you want parents, educators, and others in mentorship roles to take away from these stories, for themselves and for those they may help to influence?
ISAY: All of us have a calling and you never give up, no matter how late in life that is. You often see you really have to have a fire in your belly and fight incredibly hard often to do that work and sustain yourself in that work, but once you find it, there’s just nothing like it. It’s really a gift. I am kind of a freak. I was really lucky that when I was 21 years old, I found my calling, and I’m grateful every day for that. There are a lot of people who work in education who are similarly lucky and found their calling to be a teacher. One of the things that I found from reading these interviews, listening to these interviews—thousands and thousands and thousands—is that people who feel like they found their calling, who feel really grounded in their work and really nourished by it, are in a profession where they feel like they are helping others in some way, and that just seems to be an absolutely critical part of the equation.
EW: What about young people who don't have the resources either through family or school to help them on this path to their calling? Is there a responsibility of the community—either locally or at large—to help with guidance? How do we fix that?
ISAY: I think we’re all striving to be our highest selves, and obviously it’s easier for people who have resources to have the time and the breathing room to find their calling. I think especially for educators and people in the education business, it is core to who they are to help people find what they’re meant to do with their lives. It’s certainly a responsibility. There are people who may not be able to go directly into their callings for one reason or another—paying off student loans and so forth—but one of the lessons from the book is: Even if you can’t do it now, keep your eye on the prize and eventually you can get there. There are a lot of stories of people who were doing something and decided it just wasn’t working for them. They took a pay cut to do that thing which they were meant to do and are much happier than in a job where they didn’t feel like it was in the stars for them to be doing it.
EW: There is quite a bit of pressure on students to pursue higher education and grand achievement—or to go into certain job fields like STEM—but not all of these stories followed that path. Some people found their most satisfying work as street-corner astronomers or bridge-tenders after time in more traditional jobs. As I understand it, vocation has less to do with prestige and more to do with finding satisfaction and joy in work that is right for each person. Do you think our educational system (and our world for that matter) sometimes looks at meaningful work in the wrong way?
ISAY: The trick is to figure out what it is you want to do, and in some professions that requires higher education and in some professions it doesn’t. But again, it’s figuring out where those concentric circles line up of what it is you’re great at, what it is you’re passionate about, what it is that makes you feel good and then doing everything you can to follow that path. I think there’s a sense that we have something of a lost generation who go from job to job so they have money to pay the rent and go out and have enough money to exist and that the work life may not mean that much to them. I think one of the messages from this book is that there is another path, and finding a fulfilling meaningful work life can be one of the most rewarding and important parts of your life.
EW: In a past interview with Krista Tippett on her public radio program "On Being," you talked about how listening is an act of love—whether that's listening to others or listening to the voices within ourselves. How can schools create an atmosphere of "listening" to help students shape their callings?
ISAY: Everyone who reads this knows how important soft skills—social and emotional learning—are. I think that what teachers do and want to do, and what drives them and brings them into schools is giving kids the space and watering the soil so they can fall in love with learning and figure out what they love to do and what sets them on fire. It’s absolutely critical in an education space. There are different sorts of [storytelling] programs like Facing History and Ourselves [nonprofit that helps students examine racism, prejudice, and antisemitism through curriculum or StoryCorps’ program StoryCorpsU, which spends a year playing StoryCorps stories [in the classroom] that speak to kids and teaching the interview method to help kids discover the power of their own voice. Curricular exercises and places in the school day where kids can reflect and figure out who they are and what they care about is absolutely critical to an education. You want to make kids want to come to school in the morning, and that means exposing them to things they love and giving them breathing room, so they can experience different things and in a meaningful way.
EW: You have personally found a calling helping others tell their stories. What has passion for your work meant to you?
ISAY: It’s been critical. It’s all-consuming. I have a family and kids and my work, and they are two things I care about deeply and think I do well. There’s not room for much else. I haven’t watched TV or seen a movie or done anything for years, but it’s worth it. I think that to have work that is meaningful to you that you feel like you do well is incredibly nourishing. I feel grateful every day that not only did I find my calling but was able to pursue it and can still do it every day. The work is really hard, and you find many people in the book work insanely hard when finding their calling, but I have no regrets. It’s worth all of the blood, sweat, and tears, every drop of them. I hope I get the chance to keep doing this work until they put me in the pine box and bury me in the ground.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Vol. 35, Issue 28, Page 19